In her preface, Sutcliff lists the heroic qualities on which she based her selections: Each figure “is always a great man in one way or another”; “very often is not particularly wise or good”; “is larger than life, and enlarges the lives of those who share his story”; “has a special kind of magnetism that lives on after him” and allows stories developed about other men to be attributed to him; and “very often he dies young and violently.”
According to the author, Caratacus’ decision to retreat from the Roman troops and resume fighting at a later date was “a more difficult thing for any leader than to lead them forward in victory.” Caratacus is described as a charismatic leader. Later, he must make a Delphic decision as to the item with the most importance: his captured wife and children or his continued struggle with the Romans. One part of his life did not match the heroic characteristics—he did not die young, but in exile.
King Arthur is depicted as the source for many writers, all trying to place him in their own historical periods. The author presents the literary Arthur and questions whether Arthur was somehow lost in the retellings, with Sir Lancelot emerging as the hero. Sutcliff then provides the historical basis for Arthur as well as another heroic quality—that of stories about other men being attached to him. She credits Arthur’s victory at Badon with allowing the blending of the British and Roman cultures, rather than the decimation of the British.
Because of his efforts as a lawmaker, administrator, and translator of books, Alfred’s claim to greatness was possibly greater during times of peace. Sutcliff emphasizes his heroic efforts against the Danish. In the case of Hereward of Mercia, Sutcliff describes him as “a man like a west wind and a thundercloud and a burst of sunshine all rolled into one.” Like Caratacus, Hereward does not follow the heroic pattern of dying young, but he differs because the legends that developed about him claim that he died on the battlefield.
With Prince Llewellin, the next-to-the-last champion of Welsh freedom, Sutcliff emphasizes his traits of leadership and recklessness as heroic qualities. After his death, his prior mockery and...
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Sutcliff has earned a reputation as one of the premier writers of historical fiction for young adults, and despite the fact that Heroes and History is purportedly a collective, nonfictional biography, the author herself admits that the book treads the fine line between fiction and fact. In her preface, Sutcliff writes thatBeowulf and Achilles, Robin Hood, Bayard and El Cid; Finn Mac Cumhal, Saladin, King Arthur, Romulus, and William Wallace; they all have the indefinable ‘larger-than-life’ quality, whether they are characters of sober history or figures of legend and High Romance.
She also claims, however, to have “kept to those British Heroes who have a place in the history books.” Thus her intention in writing Heroes and History was “to find out the men behind the legends and fit them into their proper places in the story of Britain.”
In her historical fiction, Sutcliff has also focused on British history—from prehistory to the Roman occupation to the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods to the Middle Ages. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, about the time that this biography was published, Sutcliff was known for her translations of such classic texts as Beowulf (1951), The Hound of Ulster (1963), and The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool (1967), as well as for her juvenile literature. The latter includes such timeless works as the trilogy The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Silver Branch (1957), and The Lantern Bearer (1959), to which she added Frontier Wolf in 1980; Outcast (1955); The Shield Ring (1956); Warrior Scarlet (1958); Knight’s Fee (1960); Dawn Wind (1961); and Sword at Sunset (1963). Sutcliff’s collective biography joins this critically acclaimed list of historical texts for young adults.